Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes believes that to be an artist, one must live life to the max.
“I meet people all the time that don’t live full enough lives,” he says. “I’m real adamant about living. If people ask me, I’d be more inclined to say I’m a bon vivant than to tell you I’m an artist.”
Alley-Barnes is an artist, however, one who has worked with textiles, video and found objects. He has also run a cooperative gallery and curated shows at the Frye Art Museum here in Seattle.
As a boy, Alley-Barnes had an insatiable curiosity about the world around him.
At 12, he wanted to know more about human anatomy so he got a gig as an assistant in a pathology lab. He later developed a fascination with robotics.
Alley-Barnes planned to study medicine, but a short stint at Emory University in Atlanta convinced him he wasn’t cut out for the collegiate life.
Instead, he returned to Seattle. He set up shop as a clothing designer, delved into music video production and deep philosophical discussions with friends. Alley-Barnes united with some of those friends in an artistic alliance called the Black Constellation.
Although both of Alley-Barnes’ parents are artists, he never made a conscious choice to follow in their footsteps.
“Art was kind of the thing that you always did in my household,” he says. “It was never thought of per se as a profession, even if one was making money doing it.”
One of Black Constellation's goals is to connect with what Alley-Barnes calls Africanity, something he defines as “things, notions, energy and ephemera from the Continent.” He sees himself as a conduit for the spirits of generations that came before him.
“I’m beholden to the ancestors, and the things that have preceded me,” he says.
Alley-Barnes and his Black Constellation compatriots try to imbue the essence of those ancestors and their present-day experiences into everything they create — visual art, poetry, music and exhibitions — then send those creations into the realm of popular culture.
Two musical groups, Shabazz Palaces and THEEsatisfaction, are integral members of the Black Constellation. They have signed with Sub Pop Records, which lets them disseminate their music and message to a wider, more mainstream audience than they otherwise might have reached.
Alley-Barnes acknowledges that it's sometimes a challenge to follow his vision in Seattle, where he’s been the victim of both covert and overt racism. In 2005, he was assaulted by Seattle police officers outside a nightclub. He subsequently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit and won a cash settlement from the Seattle Police Department. Alley-Barnes explored that experience in a 2010 art show called “To Serve and Protect.”
Seattle also has provided Alley-Barnes with the space to dream big.
“It’s this place that’s absolutely enchanted and magical,” he says. “Seekers of certain kinds of spiritual energy have been coming here for a very, very long time.”
Alley-Barnes recently channeled some of this energy into curating an exhibition called “Young Blood” at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum. The show features the work of two brothers, photographer and filmmaker Khalil Joseph and painter Noah Davis, both originally from Seattle and tied to the Black Constellation. Davis died last year at the age of 32 from a rare form of cancer.
The exhibition has drawn rave reviews, but Alley-Barnes says he can’t take all the credit. Curator or artist, he is a conduit for the spirits, both living and dead.